here it is the middle of april and already, i am thinking about fall. since i made my permanent move to the north shore in 2003, my autumnal evenings have been spent in the back yard, banding saw-whet owls as they move in endless waves across the granite of the laurentian shield. the owls move to survive; to avoid winter in a landscape whose resources are often lost beneath winter’s thick coat of snow. surviving winter means an opportunity to reproduce in the spring and as you well know…i am all over that process.
to date, i have banded over 4ooo owls and all it takes is for one of my bands to be read in another place to make the long hours worth while. so far, i have had “returns” in minnesota, wisconsin, iowa, illinois, indiana, ohio, new york, and throughout canada. in 2010, a male owl i had banded in september of 2008 was captured and released at a nest box in north central ontario. its mate was banded in pennsylvania during the fall of 2009.
last fall, i banded an owl and the next night, it was recaptured in duluth. straight line, that was a 90 mile journey in right around 24 hours. the owl sensed the need to move and did so with celerity.
as an avian comparison i turn to “brat”, a tiercel (male) peregrine falcon that was released (hacked) from the mn peregrine reintroduction project’s mount leveaux hack site in the summer of 1986.
warning: heart-warming anecdote to follow.
during the summer of 1986, i was the lead hack site attendant on leveaux. that meant my partner and i spent too much time in an observation blind that was too small, typically after a night of drinking too much beer. we released 18 falcons that summer, which meant the flights over leveaux were sometimes crazy. the birds were newly hatched and not the brightest bulbs in the socket…were they incandescent bulbs, they would have glowed at about 10 watts. once they developed their flight skills though, the falcon in them took over and we would watch amazing stoops and tail chases that both entertained and bedazzled.
brat was the most brazen of the tofte 18 and was always the first falcon on the fresh quail in the morning and the first to take to the wing in defense of the leveaux site. his name was entirely based on behavior. he was a bully and a thug, and extremely vocal, so even when you couldn’t see him, you could hear him (perhaps good training for the owler that I was to become). brat was originally released at weaver dunes (kellogg, mn) but was transported to the north shore due to a nasty black fly hatch that actually sucked the blood (and life) out of several of the chicks.
to cut to the chase (and to overcome anecdote apathy), brat had breakfast one august morning in tofte, was captured at hawk ridge one day later, and back in tofte for breakfast the next morning. 180 miles, tofte to duluth to tofte and all we could do was ask: “why would anything or anyone come back to tofte?” i know the answer now, and it has nothing to do with the frozen yogurt machine at the holiday gas station.
to me, 90 miles is a significant flight for a short-winged, forest dwelling owl. for the peregrine, it is nothing. in both cases though, we never would have known where the owl or peregrine had come from, had it not been for the numbered bands on their leg. the rewards are few and far between, but when they occur, it’s better than the macarena.
owls tonight. the return of the midnight coffee cowboy.